For contemporary Western audiences, an element of Yasujirō Ozu’s Good Morning may prove baffling: the fashion with which the women in the film tend to let themselves into one another’s houses without controversy or fanfare, weathering no accusations of trespassing or rudeness. One may initially assume that the various suburban Japanese families of the narrative live together in a single and barely subdivided home—despite the interlocking pillow shots that affirm the separation of each domicile—because Ozu’s prismatic images often deliberately suggest such a metaphorical association. When two housewives speak to one another from their respective doors, the shot is flattened so that one can barely discern the street that separates them, and so, from our vantage point, the women could be conversing from the opposing sides of a singular hallway. Such illusions abound in Good Morning, as we’re given both a precise and fantastical grasp of the suburb’s geometry, rendering it all the more singular and mysterious.
As in many Ozu films, the dwellings are characters in themselves. Ozu frames much of Good Morning from his famous near-floor-level perspective, showing how much more one can see when surveying something from a fresh angle. Ozu’s astonishing deep-focus compositions render each home as a flat yet distinctive series of planes within planes (and stages within stages), each with its function. We see a foreground, for instance, where an out-of-work translator completes freelance assignments while his sister does errands in the background, each engaged in the affirming concentration of their tasks, though the compression also emphasizes their closeness. Good Morning boasts a kind of X-ray hyper-tactility that’s intensified by Ozu’s embrace of Technicolor, which he uses for its bold emphasis, allowing objects to pop with a painterly intensity that highlights their extraordinary ordinariness.
This aesthetic embarrasses the formalism of conventional directors, who provide coverage that offers a smidgeon of pre-digested information per image, fashioning an I.V. drip of expositional orientation. In Good Morning, Ozu is always showing us the entire film simultaneously: This is a rigorously controlled, structured, and theoretical work that also resounds with the warm and spontaneous vitality of life—a seemingly paradoxical achievement that exists as a peak of cinematic artistry. The fluid borders of the homes in this close-knit suburb serve many purposes, most obviously functioning as a representation of postwar Japan before the technological boom of television. This suburb is stifling, governed by the usual gossip and judgment, yet reassuring—and this sweet, sour, and sober understanding of life, as both caustic and gratifying, is a significant element of Ozu’s aesthetic core.
Ozu sees television as a threat to a mode of direct human interaction that he simultaneously understands to be nourishing and hollow. From the vantage point of 2017, which is in the grip of media omnipresence beyond the filmmaker’s worst and wildest nightmares, it’s hard to disagree with Ozu. Part of our bafflement over this neighborhood’s free-borders policy resides in the prickliness that’s now encouraged of us. We go to a coffee house, presumably for socializing that isn’t possible in our homes, only to cocoon ourselves in the media we use at home, hanging a “keep away” sign on our foreheads. People can never tell when they’re being spoken to anymore, because that might require the unthinkable removal of their ear buds. Good Morning documents the beginning of this age, as the children are drawn to a neighbor’s television so they can watch baseball and sumo wrestling in an enraptured silence that renders them communities of one among many.
Yet Ozu isn’t telling the next generation to get off his lawn, as he quietly rues a way of life that he knows to be passing, and the devolution of our cultural rapport has invested said rue with great retrospective agency. The two children at the center of Good Morning’s narrative—Minoru (Kôji Shitara) and Isamu (Masahiko Shimazu), sons of Keitaro (Chishū Ryū) and Tamiko Hayashi (Kuniko Miyake)—refuse to speak until their parents buy them a television of their own, thusly literalizing the film’s fear of media as an obliterator of discourse, while serving as a rebuke to said discourse. Ironically and movingly, when Keitaro caves and buys a set, he does so in a way that honors communal loyalty and kindness, to both his children and to the struggling salesman from whom he buys the device. Played for qualifiedly nostalgic humor, this story intersects with a series of farcical misunderstandings circulating within the neighborhood over what happened to the dues that were collected for a women’s club. The solution to the mystery of the second narrative is resolved matter-of-factly without much dramatic fallout, serving as a pretense for Ozu to explore the poignant and hypocritical tenants of communication that Minoru and Isamu find so unpalatable.
It’s a pretense of rebellion, of course, as the boys want their TV, though they inadvertently unearth a truth. Minoru tells Keitaro that adult conversation is little more than meaningless busy talk—“Good morning,” “How are you?,” and “How’s the weather?”—and so why should his pouting be taken any less seriously than this figurative flatulence? This question tears a whole in the faux contentment of postwar Japanese society. Minoru’s comparison is unreasonable, designed to hurt his parents, yet hauntingly re-contextualizes our attitudes toward the behavior of the adult characters. Much of Good Morning is composed of the very talk that Minoru deplores, yet Ozu is more curious than the boy, understanding small talk as the “lubricant” of our discourse, to borrow the word of a lonely character.
We can so rarely talk of big things, such as our passions, loves, and deeply absorbed insecurities and heartbreaks. So we prattle on about the weather with gentle and exploratory longing, as silly anecdotes come to embody the majority of our lives. The boys, not yet schooled in these subtleties, bond through farting, which we hear in a spectrum of stylized sounds that come to attain a patina of innocent and ridiculous grace. This profound film reveals that nothing is below the purview of existential contemplation, even all matters of flatulence, and words as simple as “Good morning” are revealed to contain fathomless multitudes. The phrase may be an evasive banality, but, for many of these characters, it’s either true or hopeful of a future bright day.
This exquisite 4K restoration is well worth the double-dip if you own a prior edition of Good Morning. The image is robust and alive, with rich Technicolor cinematography that suggests a motion pop-up book. Red, a color used by Yasujirō Ozu as a thread to link images, really sings, and flesh tones are more textured and vibrant than before. Most important is the pristine and revelatory clarity of the varying planes of the compositions, which alerts contemporary eyes to Ozu’s playful use of camera perspective. The filmmaker renders a neighborhood through a series of nearly abstract physical flourishes that owes a debt to Tati and would come to inform the cinema of Jean-Luc Godard and Wes Anderson, and this edition provides a valuable reminder of Ozu’s puckish sense of invention, which is underrated for the sake of celebrating him as a grandmaster of quotidian tragedy (also true). The monaural mix isn’t as radically upgraded as the image, which wasn’t necessary anyway, though the lower notes of the score resound with more body and the intricate symphony of diegetic effects are as vibrant as ever.
The most exciting inclusion here is Ozu's 1932 silent film, I Was Born, But..., a masterpiece in its own right with themes and situations that resurface in Good Morning. Both films contrast the customs of children and adults, showing how the former gradually come to learn the rules of the game, the awkwardness of their initiation highlighting the insidious contrivances of social hierarchy. I Was Born, But... is formally rougher , boasting a docudramatic quality that exhilaratingly contrasts with Ozu's brilliant use of multiple planes to elucidate class tension. Good Morning is a comedy with a roiling dramatic undertow, while I Was Born, But... transitions abruptly and heartbreakingly from comedy to drama in its final act, where boys interrogate their father about his lot in life with enraged naïveté. The father, hurt but unable to further rupture his diminished power over the boys, weathers their accusations and later looks over them while they sleep, praying that they don't end up as mere "apple polishers" like him. This moment is as moving and emotionally unresolvable as any in Ozu's filmography. The restoration isn't as sparkling as Good Morning's, as there are numerous blemishes, but image detail is superb and accompanied with a score by Donald Sosin.
The other features are informative and passionate. One wishes that the interview with David Bordwell and the video essay with David Cairns were longer, though they respectively manage to describe a complex aesthetic without getting lost in the theoretical weeds. Cairns's essay is particularly refreshing for its emphasis on the humor that's always been present in Ozu's work, even in supreme tragedies like Tokyo Story. Meanwhile, Jonathan Rosenbaum's essay illuminatingly explores how Ozu's senses of social and cinematic formalism feed one another in Good Morning. Footage from Ozu's 1929 silent film, A Straightforward Boy, rounds out this terrific package, reaffirming the symbols and motifs that so obsessed the director, moving through his work like ripples in a pond.
Criterion's release of Good Morning is a luscious, vibrant, must-own restoration of a titanic work of postwar Japanese cinema.